This is the story of Leszek Wiszowaty who came to the United States from Poland in 1985. The interview process for my oral history project was very interesting for me, especially since I got to know more about my own father. Although my father did tell me about his life in America as a kid and his experience in an American college, I did not know other interesting parts of his life. I didn’t know that my father flew to America as a 5-year-old because his mother was to take care of his sister’s newborn daughter. I found it interesting that my father’s mother wouldn’t allow my father to stay with his father in Poland. I was also surprised by the fact that my father knew almost nobody in America when he arrived here at the age of 21. It just shows how difficult immigration was, and how difficult it was for immigrants to adapt to a new country and a new style of life as a foreigner.
A historical event that greatly shaped the life of my father was the Communist/Socialist influence on the government of Poland. Since Poland was behind the Iron Curtain at the time, it was going to be very difficult for my father to find a job and make a living. My father stated: “economically, it was not doing very well, so I knew that if I graduated from college there, I wouldn’t have too many opportunities as far as jobs and my career”. The economy wasn’t doing so well, and if it weren’t for Communism, my father wouldn’t have moved to America. Also, I think that if my father’s sister, my aunt, hadn’t been living in America at the time, my father wouldn’t have gone and visited her. Also, I don’t think he wouldn’t be able to become an American citizen if my aunt wasn’t already a citizen. Thanks to communism and my aunt, my father now lives in America and is raising my family.
My father said that he wouldn’t refer to the American Dream as the American Dream, but rather as anybody’s dream. I was intrigued by this because society’s definition of a good and healthy life is different around the world. However, my father provided me with examples that can apply to anyone: “to get a good education, to have a successful family life, and to have kids, and a place to live, and I job that would provide for you and for the family”. Even before flying to America, my father had this dream; however, America has made this dream more possible and easier to reach. My father’s definition of the American Dream (or anybody’s dream) hasn’t changed my view on the American Dream, but I still agree with him. I am glad that he believes that he accomplished the American Dream, and I am thankful for the opportunities America has provided for immigrants.
Interview with my father, Leszek Wiszowaty, about his journey from Poland to America
Interviewer: Matthew Wiszowaty
Interviewee- Leszek Wiszowaty
Q - In which year did you arrive in America and how old were you?
A - I was 5 years old when I arrived in America in 1969. I came here with my mother, we flew from Warsaw to Paris, and then from Paris to Chicago. And then we came to visit my sister in New York who had just given birth to her daughter, my niece, Yvonne.
Q - Is that the only reason you flew here?
A - Yeah, my mom flew here to my sister, cus’ she needed help raising a child, and my mother didn’t want to leave me with my father in Poland, so she took me along with her.
Q - How long did you stay here?
A - I stayed here ‘til June 1972, so 2 ½ years.
Q - So did you go back flying a plane or on a ship?
A - Yeah we took a ship, the Stefan Batory Ship. The whole trip took like 4 weeks, and we stopped in England, we stopped in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, along the way, and then we arrived to Gdynia.
Q - Can you describe the whole ship experience?
A - It was pretty boring for most of the time. There were many activities on the ship for adults, but not many for children.
Q - Does that mean you came back to America again?
A - Yeah, I returned to Poland in 1972 and I went to the second grade of grammar school, and I completed high school and a year and a half of college there, and in 1985 I came back to America.
Q - How did you get to America this time?
A - Well, my sister invited me over, so I came here as a tourist. And yeah, I flew here with the Polish Airlines (LOT). I lived with my sister originally, I went to college here to improve my English because the English I knew as a child I had forgotten and everything, so I had to brush up on my English skills.
Q - So, my next question was “How did you learn English?” Did you learn it just in America when you lived here as a child?
A - Well, when I was here as a child, I went to first grade of grammar school, so I learned a bit of English. I wasn’t fluent in English, but when I was going back to Poland in ‘72 I knew enough of English to communicate, to speak, but not enough to write very well
Q - The second time you came here, how old were you?
A - I was 21.
Q - What languages did you speak when you came here the second time?
A - Well, when I was in grammar school and high school in Poland, I learned Russian and German, and I also took some English classes, but not too many.
Q - Other than your sister, did you know anyone else living in America?
A - My mother’s uncle was here, and my father’s brother. Originally, when we arrived at Chicago, we stayed at my uncle’s, my father’s brother house, and then when we came to New York, my mother’s uncle helped us find an apartment and settle down in Maspeth.
Q - Have you lived here ever since?
A - Ever since… yeah. I have lived here since 1985.
Q - Have you visited Poland?
A - I’ve been to Poland countless number of times. I would say 10, 15 times over the past 33 years.
Q - What was your first impression when you arrived here the first time and the second time?
A - My first impression… was… that… I was only 5 so I don’t remember. When I was 21 my first impression was… uh… that it’s gonna be hard, because I was here by myself and I could rely only on my sister’s help. Luckily, she let me live with her for 2 years, so I was able to save on rent, and with the first couple jobs I had, I was able to save enough money to later have enough money to pay my own rent when I moved out of the house.
Q - When you were 21, did you fly here yourself? You said that it was going to be hard since you were on your own.
A - No, I flew here actually with my distant cousin, my cousin’s husband, we flew here together on the same flight.
Q - I know why you came here when you were 5, but why did you come here when you were 21?
A - Uh, in 1985 Poland was still under the Communist/Socialist rule, and Poland had just come out of the martial law. Economically, it was not doing very well, so I knew that if I graduated from college there I wouldn’t have too many opportunities as far as jobs and my career, so when my sister invited me here, originally, I planned on earning some money and going back, but after I went to college in America and met my first wife, I decided to stay here.
Q - Was it easy getting used to the American culture compared to the Polish culture?
A - It wasn’t that difficult… it was different, but it wasn’t that difficult. It wasn’t easy because I was on my own, and I had to provide for myself. Luckily, I had my sister, so I was able to save enough money to start my own life, get my own apartment and so on.
Q - You said you were saving up money, so which jobs did you have?
A - My first job was at a local hardware store, Griff’s Hardware. I worked there for 6 months. While I was working there, I also got a job at Niederstein's Restaurant. I worked there for 19 years.
Q - Which college did you go to, and what did you major in.
A - In Poland… in Poland, after I graduated liceum (high school), I went to Politechnika Warszawska (Warsaw Technical University), and I was studying electronics. And, when I came here, I went to LaGuardia Community College. First I was taking basic courses to improve my English, and then, since I got many transfer credits from Poland, I was able to get an Associate’s degree in Computer Science, having studied in LaGuardia for about a year or so.
Q - Many people speak of the “American Dream”. In your words, what is the “American Dream”? Do you think you accomplished it?
A - “American Dream”... I wouldn’t call it the American Dream… I would call it anybody’s dream… is to get a good education, to have a successful family life, and to have kids, and a place to live, and I job that would provide for you and for the family. And, in America it was a little easier to accomplish all of that than it was in Poland, that’s why I came here. I believe I was able to accomplish the American Dream because after 33 years, I have a good job, I have a house, I have a family, and… hopefully I will be able to retire before anyone else.
Q - Do you have anything else you would like to share?
A - Um, yes. I would like to say that it used to be a lot easier for people to accomplish the American Dream than it is now. But, with hard work and perseverance anyone could still do well here
Matthew Wiszowaty '21 (BHSEC Queens)
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